The Politics of Transition

One of the things most lacking in the political and social thought of the industrial world in the last century, it seems to me, is a sense of process. Pick an ideology, any ideology, as close to the mainstream or far out on the fringe as you like, and you’re much more likely than not to find its proponents fixated on the form of society they want to see, rather than paying attention to how society will get there, or for that matter what it will do next.

The sense of society unfolding through time in an organic process, central to the thought of such social philosophers as Edmund Burke and enshrined in the elegant balances of the American constitution, finds few supporters these days. Even the time-release Utopia of Karl Marx, which envisioned communism rising out of socialism by the continued workings of the dialectical process, has gone out of fashion. Nowadays we’re not willing to wait for organic process or the withering away of the state, nor do we want to think about what comes after we get what we want. We want our perfect society handed over pronto in nice disposable bags by the clerk at the drive-up window, hold the pickles and away we go.

This rejection of process has probably done more than anything else to keep the social change movements of the last few decades from achieving most of their goals. In the same way and for the same reasons, trying to force an ecotechnic society into existence in the next twenty years, say, is a recipe for failure. As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the form of economy and society that succeeds best under any given set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with the resources and technology available at the time, than on deliberate choices by human beings. Ecotechnic societies will emerge and prosper only when the interactions between humanity and environment favor them above other options.

What this means in practice is that as long as fossil fuels are still available in significant amounts, scarcity industrialism or something like it will be more successful. As long as raw materials and surviving technologies from the industrial age are available in significant amounts, salvage societies will be more successful. Only when the resources available to human societies are once again limited to what the earth provides renewably will ecotechnic societies – human cultures supporting a high technology on a sustainable basis – be the most successful option.

Two other factors combine with the pressure of environmental factors to make the transition to ecotechnic societies a slow one. First of all, nobody alive today knows what a truly sustainable technological society would look like, much less how to build one. The only form of technic society we’ve yet seen is the industrialism of the last 300 years, and nearly everything that makes that latter system work will be going away as the age of cheap abundant energy draws to an end. The Long Descent ahead of us is, among other things, an opportunity for social evolution, in which various populations will try out many different forms of technical, economic, and social organization, some of which will turn out to be more successful than others. Out of that process will evolve the successful ecotechnic forms of the far future.

The other side of the problem is political, of course. A great many people in the peak oil scene are fond of the common superstition that all political power rests in the hands of a sinister elite – you’ll note that elites in contemporary folklore are always sinister, like witches and stepmothers in early modern folk tales – who are personally responsible for everything wrong with the world. This is a great way for middle class intellectuals to avoid noticing the extent to which they participate in, and profit from, a system they claim to oppose, but as a tool for understanding power relationships within society it has precisely nothing to recommend it. Rather, modern industrial society can best be seen as a diverse collection of power centers, each with its own base of support, striving to build its strength, make alliances, and exert influence over the creaking machineries of government, society and economy.

Most of the time the result of this diffusion of power is inertia, but there are two factors that can overcome that. The first of these is that a charismatic leader (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, or Ronald Reagan) or a persuasive group with a plan (liberals in the early 1960s, or neoconservatives in the late 1990s) can attract enough support from the various power centers to force through change. The second is that a leader who isn’t charismatic enough (Huey Long, say, or Jimmy Carter) or a group that isn’t persuasive enough (conservatives in the Goldwater era, say, or radicals in the 1980s and 1990s) but who threaten the status quo, can cause the power centers to unite against them in an effort to preserve their own autonomy.

Now it’s possible that the peak oil movement might find a charismatic leader or present a plan so persuasive that it can overcome the automatic veto of industrial society’s built-in inertia. So far, though, it shows no signs of doing either one. Instead, radicals on all sides of the political continuum have started to redefine their own pet projects as responses to peak oil. I’ve noted before on this blog the way that the straightforwardly neofascist British National Party and its would-be f├╝hrer, Nick Griffin, have embraced peak oil as the factor they hope will catapult them into power. Equally, though, you can hear any number of people on the far left insisting with equal vigor that the only thing that can save the world from a dire fate is the immediate adoption of whatever their preferred system of society happens to be.

This is where the blindness to process becomes an insuperable barrier. Nearly all of the plans floated by the radicals of left and right alike have certain key features in common. They require that every group that currently holds power in society should become subordinate to the plan, which in practice, of course, means their subordination to the people who will be implementing and managing the plan. The plans also require a complete break with the past, and the imposition of a new system in which all the ground rules have been changed to benefit the new holders of power. The power centers that make up industrial society can be counted on to resist demands like these with all their considerable strength.

Nor are they necessarily wrong to do so. The success rate for novel social, economic, and political programs crafted by politically radical intellectuals is, to put things mildly, not good. As the sorry history of Marxism demonstrated with great force, the fact that a writer can level a powerful critique at an existing system does not mean that the same writer has a working replacement for it – as a popular saying in Russia these days has it, “everything Marx said about communism was false, but everything he said about capitalism was true” – and the fact that a proposed replacement looks good on paper does not prove that it will work well in practice. At a time when society will be experiencing drastic strains and many people will be struggling to make ends meet, betting survival on an untested system may not be the best option.

Does this mean that reform is out of the question? Of course not. Significant reforms are going to be needed as the age of cheap abundant fossil fuels comes to an end. Here in America, in particular, a window of opportunity is likely to open in the next five years or so, for reasons that follow from the points already made here.

In the late 1990s, as I’ve suggested above, the neoconservative movement in America became the most recent example of a persuasive group with a plan that managed to unite a great many power centers behind it. It’s been argued, and I think correctly, that the plan in question was a response to the imminent arrival of peak oil, drawn up hurriedly after the final failure of the Reagan-era decision to let the free market come up with a replacement for America’s oil reserves. The neoconservative plan envisioned an American military occupation of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, starting with Iraq, under the threadbare rhetorical cloak of “spreading democracy.” History will not be kind to them; their plan was badly conceived and ineptly carried out, its long-term goals are now definitively out of reach, and at this point the entire scheme – along with the US military and economic presence in the Middle East – stands on the brink of catastrophic failure.

Whether or not that happens, the neoconservative consensus that currently unites both major American parties (and their equivalents in Britain, Australia, and other close US allies) is already beginning to splinter. The attraction of that consensus was simply that no one else had a proposal in hand that would allow the United States to cling to its precarious position as the world’s dominant power. The neoconservative debacle, with its likely consequences in the military, political and economic realms, will force a shift in priorities to the raw necessities of national survival, and in this setting a coherent plan focusing on conservation, renewable energy, economic and agricultural disintermediation, and the rebuilding of America’s rail network and canal systems could easily win a great deal of support.

Will such a program bring on the ecotechnic age? Of course not, nor will it prevent the end of industrial society. What it would do is cushion the coming of the deindustrial age, allow a good many more people to have something approaching quality of life in the decades to come, and build foundations on which future generations can build further. That is to say, it focuses on the process of managing the Long Descent, rather than trying to impose an arbitrary shape on the societies that will come after it.

There are other steps of the same kind, less dependent on the cooperation of government, that will also be worth putting into effect as the transition out of the Age of Abundance begins. We’ll be talking about them in the next few posts.